An Ordinary Night

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

~Billy Collins “I Ask You”

I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected
~Mary Oliver  from “Everything”

Some days, my search for new words and images runs dry, especially in mid-winter when a chill wind is blowing and inhospitable. I seek indoor comfort more than inspiration. I am content sitting in a warm kitchen with other’s words running through my ears and over my tongue.

I feel kinship with the amaryllis bulb that has been on my kitchen table for the past month, as it enjoys the warmth in its soil pot and occasional drink of water. It started out as such a plain-looking bulb, so dry, so underwhelming in every respect. Once the stem started emerging from its plain-jane cocoon, I watched it grow taller each day. Last week it burst open, wearing its heart on its sleeve, comically cheerful at this drab time of year. I appreciate its effort at bringing summer right into my kitchen and my heart; I get a bit drab and cranky myself without the reminder that winter is not forever.

So I allow myself to drink deeply from a cup of astonishment, even on an ordinary night in an ordinary kitchen on an ordinary very cold end-of-January evening.

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Here Under This Sky

I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill from Winter: Tonight: Sunset

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.

It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings.

It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying too, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some of us more prepared than others to move on, as if our readiness has anything to do with the timing.  Once, when our small church lost one of its most senior members to metastatic cancer, he announced his readiness once the doctor gave him the dire news (he liked to say he never bought green bananas as he wasn’t sure he’d be around to use them), but God had different plans and kept him among us for several years beyond his diagnosis.

Each day I too get a little closer to the end, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing. I will be far out of the park, far beyond here.

Not a moment, not a sunrise, not a sunset, and not a word to waste.

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Blinking in the Sun

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.
~Joyce Sutphen “From Out the Cave” from Straight Out of View
.

Rather than mindfulness, I try to practice something I call “heartfulness.” Instead of staying so much inside my head while going through the necessary motions of everyday routine, I try to make sense of my place and purpose in the world to invest my heart in it. I pay attention to what is happening around me – the sights, sounds, smells – to where my feet will land next and to where my hands might extend to serve. For internally focused people like me, it helps to stretch my vision and my actions beyond my own needs.

It is like waking from a troubled sleep, and seeing familiar surroundings that have been in shadow, cast in a new light for the first time. When I first bought a phone with a camera over a decade ago, I started looking at the world differently, eager to capture the subtle changes I witnessed throughout the time of day and seasonal progression. Sometimes I receive feedback that my photos look “all the same” – they are only two-dimensional versions of what I see around me. Indeed, how can a photo communicate the fresh feel of dew-dawn air, or the crunch of snow underfoot, or the scent of spring blossoms or the smell of badly needed rain? My photo becomes my hook back to a focused moment of heartfulness for me — my reminder of what ‘was’ and ‘is” and what ‘will be again.’

As I climb out of the relative safety of my dark “cave” – a place we all retreat to when life is simply too much – I stand astonished and heart-full, blinking at the sun, aware that I’m meant to witness all that is beyond me.

And simply to share and tell about it as best I can.

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Here’s My Hand

How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

~William Stafford “Friends” from The Way It Is

I initially started writing online almost twenty years ago to a group of friends, most that I had met in real life, but some of whom I only knew from afar. It felt like I was writing a letter but without the pen, paper, envelopes and stamp.

Now I write to over 22,000 people every day. A few of you I know well, some I’ve only met once, most of you I will never have the privilege to know personally. Some of you have written to me privately (some with pen and paper, stamp and envelope!) to tell me more about your lives and how the thoughts I send along each day make a difference to you.

I know the power and love found in a hand-written letter. Someone I have known for nearly 50 years still writes to her friends – Jane Goodall was my teacher and mentor. When she gave me the opportunity to work with her in Africa in the 1970s, it changed my life in ways I still am discovering. Most remarkably, she has written to me on a number of occasions and I treasure those notes. Her familiar pen written by her familiar hand comforts me.

It’s lonely being far away, and a friend. But here is my hand. I hope you will continue to take what I offer here and find it comforting.

giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications

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Like Dust in Sunlight

The poem rises 
like dust in sunlight 
as I hold my breath
             and write
~Rick Maxson, “Ars Poetica” from  Molly and the Thieves

Words have breathed life into the dust from which we all were created.

I am still a mess of dust and words. Words suspended in light before my eyes are a reminder that God Himself breathed life and spirit into merest dust.

When I try to wrestle words down from the air to the page, I try to help them make sense, hoping then I might make sense.

I find myself holding my own breath as I write, as if that will keep my words orderly and safe, yet they have a tendency to come out jumbled and random, with no rhyme nor reason.

In my world, there is no such thing as mere dust or meaningless words. They wait for God’s holy breath to bring them to light and life.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Now available: a gift from Barnstorming if you donate $50 to support daily Barnstorming posts – you will receive three blank notecards of original art from our farm.

art by Anja Lovegren
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An Arch of Colored Light

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
~Lord Byron

But mark! what arch of varied hue
  From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
  The Rainbow in the cloud.

How bright its glory! there behold
  The emerald’s verdant rays,
The topaz blends its hue of gold
  With the deep ruby’s blaze.

Yet not alone to charm thy sight
  Was given the vision fair;–
Gaze on that arch of colored light,
  And read God’s mercy there.

~Felicia Hemans from “The Rainbow”

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I bring to the page or screen is intangible yet so very real.

I will keep reaching for rainbows, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever. It does feel like I’m clutching at a moment in time moving through my fingers.

I witnessed this Sabbath rainbow last night from our farm, standing with two of our very young grandchildren, hoping they would remember it enough to describe it to our someday great-grandchildren. Perhaps they will even read my words and know how much it mattered to me that they experience such beauty and promise.

I want them to always remember: in the beginning was the Word, and we are created by the same Author who writes incredible rainbows across the sky.

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Whispering Words of Wisdom: Let It Be

Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail ­as you surely will, adjust your lives, not the standards.
Ted Koppel

Ten years ago during this week in August, my clinical work was routine and ordinary but took a quick turn when I got a message from the media director at my university that a 14 month old medical opinion article I’d written for the student newspaper and then posted as a regular contributor on www.kevinmd.com was suddenly being quoted on the Huffington Post, Salon.com and other websites.  

Within hours, over a dozen media websites were citing “A War on Pubic Hair”

The original article was written as one in a series of opinion pieces on medical issues pertinent to college students requested by the student newspaper. I wrote it in spring 2011 after draining my umpteenth staph bacteria genital abscess due to the increasingly common practice of cosmetic removal of pubic hair. I felt the students needed to understand the hazards of what they were doing and hoped I could spare the next patient from experiencing an infection so painful and potentially serious.

So it went viral, over a year after it was written, all in a matter of hours. I was being quoted as if I had just been interviewed by these news agencies, which I had not, and they began feeding wrong information to each other: I was identified as “a leading British physician” since the first media report originated in the U.K.  One British site actually asked permission to reprint the original article, which I appreciated so that my words could not be taken out of context, but they attached a photo of me to the article lifted from my family picture on my personal blog.

Soon my personal cell phone started to ring in the middle of the night and my email in-box filled up. Messages from Europe, South America and all over the U.S. came in with requests for interviews, wanting me to elaborate in more detail on my very “provocative” point of view. I said no to every one of them even though some were respectable agencies, like the BBC, because I’d said all I had to say on this particular subject. I did not want my long career to be reduced to my defense of pubic hair or my life motto to read “Leave it alone!” Indeed I can hold my head up and be proud to tell my grandchildren someday that I actually turned down the Playboy Channel.

The online comments on the articles rapidly reproduced themselves, numbering in the thousands, with many hostile to my perspective and saying so in the most mean and inflammatory ways possible, citing my age, my looks and obvious lack of sex appeal as showing I lacked credibility in this subject. I dared to question the point of a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry spawned by the even bigger multi-billion dollar porn industry, and no one was going to let me get away with it unscathed.

Civility has become even more endangered on the internet in the intervening ten years so I believe I actually got off easy at the time. Human beings lack accountability for their words and actions while hiding behind anonymous comments on media websites and blogs. It is easy to attack, lie, threaten, and bully when it is only words on a screen directed at someone you don’t know and will never meet. Decency and civility are lost forever when the standards for moral and ethical behavior disappear in a fog of pixels and bytes.

It has taken some time and distance for me to consider whether I did the right thing writing about a medical issue no one else would touch at the time. The “bare” trend has definitely waned over the last decade yet plenty of people still engage in the practice, although the recent sexual spread of the monkey pox virus is making some think twice about it.

If I managed to convince someone to put away the razor, stop the waxing, and respect their body as nature intended it to be, maybe I did the right thing after all.

After all – I shared whispered words of wisdom:
Let it be…

Cartoon by Clay Bennett
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Earth’s Secrets

I

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While 'mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands...

II

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
—My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
"God's humblest, they!" I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.
~Thomas Hardy "An August Midnight"


There are so many more of them than us.  Yes, insects appear where we don’t expect them, they sting and bite and crawl and fly in our mouths and are generally annoying.  But without God’s humblest knowing the secrets of the inner workings of the soil, the pollinator and the blossom, we’d have no fruit, no seeds, no earth as we know it.

Even more humble are our microscopic live-in neighbors — the biome of our skin and gut affecting, managing and raising havoc with our internal chemistry and physiology in ways we are only beginning to understand.

God created us all, each and every one, from the turning and cycles of smallest of atoms and microbes to the expanding swirl of galaxies far beyond us.

Perhaps the humblest of all, found smack-dab in the middle of this astounding creation, would be us: the intended Imago Dei.

Two legs not six or eight, two eyes not many, no wings with which we might fly away, no antennae, no stinger.

Just us with our one fragile and loving heart.

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Not Remotely Mystical

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Probably Mary Oliver doesn’t stress out
about her hair or quote Led Zeppelin or start
to go upstairs to write something mystical
about a wood duck, but get sidetracked
by The Millionaire Matchmaker, watching four episodes
until, panicked by self-loathing, she hits the remote.

She lives somewhere kind of remote.
Is there even a Walmart out
in Provincetown? Mary never, in an episode
of frugality, shops there instead of the food co-op and starts
lying about where the Moose Tracks
ice cream came from, feigning loyalty to the mystical


oils and bulk grains of the co-op where Mystical
Mac ‘N Cheese costs an absurd $3.95 a box. There’s a remote
chance Mary, while pondering lilies, would get sidetracked
by a voicemail from her agent. Even Mary Oliver spaces out
on occasion and forgets to turn off her phone. Her days start
before dawn; wouldn’t she sometimes have episodes

of thinking, “To hell with the swan, I’m going to watch episodes
of Lost in bed all day?” It must be exhausting to be mystical
all the time, having to think up poems that start
with a smelly turtle and end with the glory of the soul. The remote,
sleek as an otter, lolls on her nightstand, calling out 
for her to take just this one morning off, to follow the tracks


of Matt Lauer and Dr. Phil instead of mucky tracks
left in the marsh by tick-ridden deer. Euphoric episodes
bound like grasshoppers through St. Mary’s poems, but out
in nature there must be days when nothing is special, when mystical epiphanies can’t break through the clouds. Is Mary ever so remote from it all that touching a leaf leaves her blank?

Does she start to get frantic, to fear she’s lost the connection?
She starts picturing herself in a smock with a nametag,
cleaning finger tracks off the automatic doors while wearing Mona Lisa’s remote smile, a smile barely wide enough to keep her employed. Fighting episodes of despair, she can’t figure out how to turn a shopping cart into a mystical symbol for death—piece of cake for most poets, but not for our Mary, out


there with the flora and fauna, not remotely accustomed to the episodes comprising life for those of us not “married to amazement,” the unmystical singles’ club, sidetracked by diversions. We start toward the door, but we rarely make it out.
~Christine Heppermann, “Pure” from  Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

wood duck photo from Audobon Society

Moose Tracks ice cream has nothing on Tillamook Mudslide ice cream. And I can quote Simon and Garfunkel but not Led Zeppelin. Cracker Barrel Mac n Cheese is better than any other. If I’m going to take a day to get lost in a binge of streaming episodes, it is most likely going to be Outlander. And I don’t fuss about my hair.

<sigh>

I am well aware I fall far short from the example set by Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Annie Dillard and others for whom writing became a mystical passion of self-discovery in their observation of creation and search for understanding of the Creator.

As someone who as a child could spend hours fascinated by the tiniest bug or follow ant tracks through the woods or catch pollywogs in the creek or lie motionless in a hideaway of tall grass watching clouds roll by on a summer afternoon, I can easily be accused of way too much “blissing out” on sunrises and sunsets as I walk through my days on earth.

The reality is something completely different. I compose my writing and photos as I go about my day, whether it is scooping manure in the barn, taking quick breaks to see how the light is changing outside, or gardening, or hanging up the laundry on the clothesline. I pull over on my way to work for a quick picture if something catches my eye. A trip to the grocery store offers opportunities for a back-roads drive to see how the surrounding cornfields are growing and raspberries are ripening. When I’m fortunate, I’ll spot an eagle in a roadside tree or a new calf nursing.

So every day is a new exploration of what is in my own backyard, not remotely mystical but simply there to be seen and mused over. Rather than married to amazement, I’m attracted to the remarkably mundane. But it does mean I need to walk out the door to meet it head-on.

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

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The Hope for Meaningfulness

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

…today, the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.
~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willow

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.
~Denise Levertov

We search for the unseen, hoping to find meaning in the unknown.

I am bewildered by life much of the time. Anyone looking at these online postings can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to do and how to make this sad and suffering world a little bit better place.

I have little to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised. I simply needed to pay attention. Illumination was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see its beauty laid bare, peering through the cracks of darkness.

Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!
Hope in our pain and our dying.
in our darkness, there is Light, in our crying,
there is Love, in the noise of life imparting
Peace that passes understanding.
Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

Light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after weakness, crown after cross;
Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
Home after wandering, praise after tears.
Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end,
He is making all things new.
Springs of living water shall wash away each tear,
He is making all things new. ​
Sight after mystery, sun after rain,
Joy after sorrow, peace after pain;
Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after wandering, life after tomb.
~Frances Havergal

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